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Oedipus at Large in the Old South

Poet Rita Dove re-imagines the Sophocles tragedy as a U.S. saga of family and blood.

August 13, 2000|EMORY HOLMES II | Emory Holmes II is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Simon Levy and Ben Bradley have just pulled off an unlikely, if terrifying, theatrical coup.

Outflanking much larger and far richer regional houses, the Fountain Theatre's producing director-dramaturge and its director of audience development have landed the California premiere of "The Darker Face of the Earth," an imaginatively conceived, if controversial, tragedy in verse by U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Rita Dove.

And now, sitting amid the folksy jumble of the theater's conference room, they pause to reflect on the exhilarating and slightly mad step they have made on behalf of their celebrated little theater.

"We didn't think that we would get the rights," Levy says. "We are a small, 99-seat theater, and we are up against the Taper, the Geffen, La Jolla and South Coast Rep. Why a major theater company somewhere in Southern California did not pick this play up and do it is strange to us. But we're thrilled that we are the ones who have the opportunity to present it."

They have reason to be thrilled. Dove's play re-imagines Sophocles' 2,400-year-old Oedipus tragedy as an American family saga set amid the racial and sexual obscenities of the antebellum South. By appropriating the Greek master's transcendent plot lines and ironies, Dove exposes the trivialities of race beneath the daunting profundities of blood, freedom, hubris and love. The play received its world premiere in 1996 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, followed by productions at the Kennedy Center, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, the Crossroads Theatre in New Jersey and the Royal National Theatre in London.

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But Dove's use of high-minded poetics and antique American idioms to dress up the blunt atrocities of slavery are not without detractors and their own inherent dangers. Bradley speculates that one reason more companies haven't taken on the play is because the issues of slavery, miscegenation and racial injustice "are still loaded." Adds Levy, "And the more loaded the issue, the more we wanted to do it."

Levy first attempted to mount the play two years ago but realized "Darker Face" required facilities and capital resources far beyond those then available at the Fountain. He searched for a theater that could accommodate Dove's set requirements and sprawling cast of 19, while retaining the Fountain's tradition of intimacy. He settled on the American Renegade Theatre, a handsome two-story venue at the northern terminus of L.A.'s new Metro Rail line in the burgeoning NoHo arts district.

Next, they looked for help. "We knew that we couldn't do the show alone, and that to do it we needed to be deeply involved with the artistic part of the African American community," Levy says. The Fountain had already established a reputation for outreach into the African American and other ethnic and underserved communities in Los Angeles. In 1996, the theater was home to "I Am a Man," a period play about the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers' strike, which culminated in the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

That project, coincidentally, introduced local audiences to Stanford-educated actor-director Anthony Haney. "Tony and I go way back," Levy says. "Years ago I directed him in 'The Elephant Man' back in my hometown of San Francisco. So when we were doing 'I Am a Man' and were looking for a director, I suggested Tony." Haney's staging of the play garnered strong critical acclaim, both for himself and the Fountain.

Levy called Haney, who had since become managing artistic director of Black Artists Network Development Inc., a collective of black theatrical producers, artists and technicians, founded by Adleane Hunter in 1995. The group was searching for works to present, as well as a home to establish its own L.A.-based African American theater company. Levy sent Haney a copy of Dove's play.

"[Haney] looked at it and said, 'This is gigantic. Are you out of your mind?' " Levy says, chuckling. "And we said, 'Yes. We are out of our minds. But we can do this.' "

A year and a half later, across town at the Renegade, Haney finds himself immersed in the details of a furious production schedule in advance of Friday's premiere.

Sitting like a man in a trance, Haney ponders the maze of perspectives, characters and settings, arrayed like a world of its own just beneath him. He suddenly rises from his seat high in the rear of the Renegade and strides swiftly down through the murmuring din of technicians and actors dressed in bluejeans and T-shirts, milling about the edge of the stage with their scripts.

"Hey, LaTonya, can you go up to the chair and give me a chorus of 'O Mary'?" he asks a cast member on the looming upper tier of the set, still under construction. Singer-actress LaTonya Welch moves beside an embroidered chair set back from the sweeping curvilinear edge of the set and belts out the plaintive lines of the spiritual. Haney studies her pensively.

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